Sea Change: The Modern Terrorist Environment in Perspective

Gus Martin. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers; moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.

~ President George W. Bush, Address to the Nation, September 11, 2001

Sea changes are marked transformations, representing sweeping conversions from an existing environment to a new order. These conversions often denote turning points in history, such as occurred at the end of the Second World War and after the opening of the Berlin Wall. In the modern era, a sea change in the international terrorist environment gained momentum during the decade of the 1990s and was brought to fruition with the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center, in New York City, and the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. Terrorist typologies, their tactics and targets, and counterterrorist measures have all undergone a fundamental transformation in contradistinction to the terrorist environment of the cold war era.

This chapter examines this sea change in the modern terrorist environment and argues that terrorism in the new millennium is fundamentally distinguishable from the terrorist environment of the cold war era. The crux of this discussion is a contextual analysis of the new environment, beginning with the theoretical foundations for a new conventional wisdom on the nature and quality of modern terrorism. For the purpose of assessing the attributes of this sea change, the definitional debate on terrorism is revisited. This is followed by an assessment of the emergence of the “New Terrorism,” discussed within the context of a theoretical construct for distinguishing terrorist environments. An argument is made that the “new” elements of the modern terrorist environment do fundamentally differentiate the New Terrorism from previous environments. Finally, an analysis is made of the immediate future of terrorism in a unipolar world.

The New Terrorism and a New Conventional Wisdom

What is the logic behind terrorist violence? Why do terrorist groups persist when ultimate victory is logically unattainable? Experts have observed that terrorists believe violence is a utilitarian method for achieving their goals, a “product of strategic choice” and a “calculation of cost and benefit” (Crenshaw 1998:7, 16). Research has shown that the decision to engage in politically motivated violence is usually a rational choice and the selection of targets and methods is neither random nor a by-product of crazed delusions (Ross 1996). During the cold war rivalry between the democratic West and communist East, terrorist violence was relatively selective in nature, so that targets provided maximum symbolic capital for the terrorists and casualty rates were modest. However, a fundamental shift occurred in the terrorist environment during the 1990s. Although, as Jenkins (1998:244) noted, terrorists still sought to maximize the symbolic and propaganda value of their attacks, they were no longer constrained by tactical or moralistic prohibitions against the types of weapons that they used nor the number of casualties that they inflicted (Vegar 1998). As the incidence of terrorist attacks declined, the number of casualties per attack increased (Vegar 1998). Sectarian terrorism in particular caused an increasing number of casualties per incident, a trend that will continue and that may escalate as religious terrorists develop the capability to wield weapons of mass destruction.

Before 9-11: Warnings of a New Terrorism

During the decade prior to the September 11, 2001, attack, scholars and practitioners actively debated whether a “New Terrorism” had emerged as the preeminent typology for the international terrorist environment. This debate, which continues (albeit less vigorously), is grounded in the political turmoil of the latter decades of the twentieth century. Warfare during the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly irregular and communal as roving bands of soldiers and paramilitaries committed unspeakable acts of violence in Lebanon, Central America, the Balkans, Liberia, Rwanda, East Timor, and elsewhere. During this period, a new transnational solidarity emerged among Islamic extremists, originating from the jihad against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and perceptions during the Gulf War that Muslim holy sites had been “occupied” by nonbelievers. Religious solidarity inspired the creation of loosely configured networks of like-minded radicals, and as Stern (1999:8-10) explained, evidence suggested that these networks were quite willing to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

This emerging environment was interpreted by many experts to herald the beginning of a New Terrorism, although some scholars dissented from this assessment (Johnson 2000). Van Creveld (1996) wrote: “In today’s world, the main threat to many states … no longer comes from other states. Instead, it comes from small groups and other organizations which are not states” (p. 58). Kushner (1998) noted that the capture in the 1990s of notorious terrorists such as Carlos “signaled the changing of the guard” (p. 13). Laqueur (1999) warned: “The new terrorism is different in character, aiming not at clearly defined political demands but at the destruction of society and the elimination of large sections of the population” (p. 81). Stern (1999) identified several factors that have increased the threat from terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction, noting ominously,

Such weapons are especially valuable to terrorists seeking to conjure a sense of divine retribution, to display scientific prowess, to kill large numbers of people, to invoke dread, or to retaliate against states that have used these weapons in the past. Terrorists motivated by goals like these rather than traditional political objectives are increasing in number. (P. 8)

These common elements—subnational networking, lethality, religious motivation, and a new morality—are cited as the core attributes of the shift toward a New Terrorism (Tucker 2001).

The New Conventional Wisdom

The era initiated by the September 11, 2001, attack is underscored by transformation toward a new conventional wisdom about the attributes of terrorism, the potential scale of violence emanating from terrorists, and response options available to the world community. Although experts vigorously debated the relative likelihood of terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction prior to the 9-11 attacks (Roberts 2000), in the post-9-11 era, policymakers and analysts have commented repeatedly on the “changed” international and domestic terrorist environment. The fact of the matter is that the new environment arose in the aftermath of predominant leftist and ethnonational typologies that characterized the “old” terrorist environment of the 1970s and 1980s (Hoffman 1998). Unlike the previous decades, the 1990s were distinguished by new and innovatively configured terrorist networks that were responsible for significant international incidents. These networks and incidents were different from those of previous years and were harbingers of a new era of terrorism.

The policy implications of this transformation began with the declaration of war against terrorism in September 2001, progressed through the challenges of building an international regime of counterterrorist cooperation, and saw the establishment of an unprecedented security culture in the United States (as signified by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security). The threat from the New Terrorism presents an extraordinary challenge for governments and societies during the twentyfirst century. This is because modern terrorists “would feel no compunction over killing hundreds of thousands if they had the means to do so” (Laqueur 1999:82). A central characteristic of the emerging terrorist environment is that it is characterized by a “horizontal” organizational arrangement wherein independent cells operate with near autonomy without reporting to a hierarchical command structure. Significantly, many of these new terrorists are motivated by varying admixtures of religion and nationalism that do not fit easily into precepts developed during the heyday of terrorism in the cold war era. Thus, the events of September 11, 2001, poignantly confirmed for experts the need to revisit previous analytical constructs for terrorism and counterterrorism.

A Debate Revisited: Defining Terrorism

Has the evolution in the terrorist environment appreciably affected definitional constructs for terrorism? Have governments and experts concluded that the New Terrorism necessitates a reassessment of the fundamental features of terrorism itself? The answer is no. Although few subjects in the analysis of political violence have stimulated as much debate as establishing a definitional foundation for terrorism, the discussion has not been significantly affected by the dawning of the modern environment.

During the course of the definitional debate, “More than a hundred definitions have been offered” (Laqueur 1999:5). Although this issue has been historically important within communities of experts, it continues to be arguably less important for the broader lay community. Many laypersons possess an a priori understanding that terrorism is politically motivated violence directed against minimally defended “soft” nodes, such as civilian or passive military targets. These nodes have symbolic value and are considered to be legitimate targets irrespective of whether they are human or infrastructure. Academic and practitioners’ definitions of terrorism tend to incorporate this a priori understanding into a number of empirical constructs that reflect the diversity of opinion on this subject. However, although there is some consensus among experts about what kind of violence constitutes an act of terrorism, there is no unanimity. Thus, it is an accepted reality that for the foreseeable future—and through the course of the current terrorist environment—a multiplicity of definitions will continue to exist among governments, private agencies, and scholars.

There has not been a significant reassessment of official definitions of terrorism during the ascendancy of the New Terrorism. Governments and international associations continue to base their approaches on the quality and source of political violence. Typical definitions include the following examples. The British have defined terrorism as “the use of force for political ends, [which] includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear” (Heymann 1998:3) and as “the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which involves serious violence against any person or property” (Whittaker 2001:1). In Germany, terrorism has been described as an “enduringly conducted struggle for political goals, which are intended to be achieved by means of assaults on the life and property of other persons, especially by means of severe crimes” (Office for the Protection of the Constitution). The United States Code defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

Scholars have historically engaged in the definitional debate, often drawing fine distinctions between the types of violence that should be labeled as terrorism. Nevertheless, the New Terrorism has not stimulated a fundamental rapprochement toward the core attributes of terrorist behavior. The following constructs are typical of this scholarly dialogue. Gibbs (1989, as quoted in Hamm 1994) defined terrorism as “illegal violence or threatened violence against human or nonhuman objects” (pp. 178-79), so long as that violence meets additional criteria such as secretive features and unconventional warfare. Hoffman (1998) wrote:

We come to appreciate that terrorism is … ineluctably political in aims and motives … violent—or, equally important, threatens violence … designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target… conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) … and perpetrated by a subnational group or nonstate entity. We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of change. (P. 43)

Cooper (2001) offered the following definition: “Terrorism is the intentional generation of massive fear by human beings for the purpose of securing or maintaining control over other human beings” (p. 883). Whittaker (2001:1) lists the following descriptions of terrorism that have been propounded by experts: Contributes the illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective when innocent people are targeted (Walter Laqueur); a strategy of violence designed to promote desired outcomes by instilling fear in the public at large (Walter Reich); and the use or threatened use of force designed to bring about political change (Brian Jenkins).

One central issue becomes readily apparent from the foregoing definitional discussion. All of the cited constructs focus on political violence emanating from subnational actors, thus leaving open the definitional question of what constitutes terrorist violence at the state level. This facet of terrorism and terrorist environments has also been extensively explored by experts (Claridge 1996; Sluka 1999). However, neither the New Terrorism debates during the 1990s nor the seminal events of September 11, 2001, have elicited much interest for revisiting definitional approaches for state terrorism. There is consensus among practitioners and scholars that state support for terrorist groups, and direct state involvement in international and domestic terrorism, is a significant component of the international terrorist environment. The field is intermittently active in refining descriptive terminology for certain types of deviant state behavior. For example, the definitional category “rogue state” has been accepted by most experts, although discussion continues on which regimes should be categorized as rogues (Tanter 1999). An indication of the minimal degree of dissention on the subject and the attributes of the definitional consensus is the U.S. Department of State’s promulgation of an annual list of defined terrorist states. In 2001, for example, the State Department categorized Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria as sponsors of terrorism (U.S. Department of State 2002). Such officially sanctioned designations do, of course, reflect a degree of subjectivity and political bias, but they also suggest useful guidelines for identifying the definitional elements of state terrorism.

Understanding the Sea Change: The Transition of Terrorist Environments

A clear indication of fundamental change in the terrorist environment is the fact that the preeminent typologies present during the latter quarter of the twentieth century have been supplanted by, or in some respects “updated” by, newer typological constructs (Grosscup 1998). In the new era, the incidence of ideological terrorism emanating from the left and right has become secondary to the incidence of religious terrorism. And although ethnonationalism continues to be a potent motivation for terrorist violence, it is no longer stimulated by ideological rivalries between East and West.

Elements of Terrorist Environments

It is necessary to establish a theoretical construct to identify the distinguishing elements of terrorist environments. The underlying question is whether comparisons of these descriptors provide a useful framework to differentiate terrorist environments at particular periods in recent history.

The term terrorist environment is an appellation that describes the interplay between many factors. These include terrorist motivations, terrorist tactics and targets, counterterrorist measures, and other descriptors that define the nature and quality of contemporary political violence. Terrorist environments have historically mirrored contemporary international and domestic political tensions, and the idiosyncratic features of these tensions have concomitantly influenced the type and scale of terrorist violence. Thus, the nature and quality of terrorism is never frozen in time, but undergoes periodic permutation as the overall political environment evolves.

The nature and quality of the New Terrorist environment can be evaluated by associating four factors: the foremost participants, the degree of state sponsorship, the degree of group autonomy, and counterterrorist options. These are foundational factors for determining whether a terrorist environment ought to be classified as monolithic, strong multipolar, weak multipolar, or cell based.

Transitioning Environments 

Twentieth-Century Proxy Wars

Terrorism occurs within the context of contemporary social and political environments. These environments are not static and often vary from time to time and region to region. The modern terrorist environment follows on the heels of an environment engendered by the cold war rivalry between the democratic West and the Soviet Union. During the latter half of the twentieth century, this rivalry was in many respects a series of vicarious confrontations that were fought in the developing world. Each side engaged in proxy wars by arming and supporting sympathetic governments and movements in opposition to the other side’s proxies. Examples of these wars include the following:

  • Greece, where Soviet-supported Marxist forces fought Western-supported forces during the Greek civil war
  • Angola, where the Soviets and Cubans supported the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against the U.S.- and Southafrica-supported National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) movement
  • Nicaragua, where U.S.-supported contras waged an insurgency against the Eastern-Bloc-supported Sandinista government
  • Afghanistan, where U.S.-supported mujahideen insurgents resisted the Soviet invasion

The concept of proxy war led to the Eastern Bloc’s adoption of proxy terrorism against the West. Revolutionaries from throughout the world were indoctrinated and trained by the Soviet Union and its allies, with promising prospects being recruited from institutions such as the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow. Other sympathetic governments commonly provided political and logistical support for terrorist movements during this era, so that proxy terrorism was adopted by a number of regional powers, including North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Terrorist movements occasionally acted in concert or in solidarity with one another, describing themselves as “fronts” in a global war against the West. Regional state sponsors provided training facilities, safe havens, and funding for terrorists from around the world. For example, German terrorists received training from their exiled Palestinian comrades in Lebanon.

The Contemporary Environment

The modern terrorist environment falls primarily within the cell-based construct, with some indication that the weak multipolar environment remains somewhat viable. In comparison, the terrorist environment during the 1970s and 1980s tended to cluster around the monolithic strong multipolar and weak multipolar environments. During the previous era, terrorist groups such as the Abu Nidal Organization regularly operated as proxies for state sponsors, often serving as virtual mercenaries. Other terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine collaborated with one another out of a sense of international solidarity. Proxy terrorism declined with the end of the cold war rivalry, as regimes recognized that “integration and accommodation with the West offer a more promising road to strength and stability than does confrontation” (Pillar 2001:51). In the modern era, Al-Qaeda exemplifies the cell-based model, and Afghanistan under the Taliban typifies the modern weak multipolar model. These latter cases represent a point of departure from the previous terrorist environment.

Points of Departure

Not all scholars agreed during the 1990s debate that the New Terrorism was in fact a “new” typology. There is some validity to this position, because several points of departure arose during the cold war era in contradistinction to the typical typologies of that era. An examination of these points of departure is instructive because they suggest that elements of the New Terrorism can be found in case studies selected from past conflicts. This is illustrated in the following examples of the Battle of Algiers, the “stateless revolutionaries,” and the Afghan Arabs.

The Battle of Algiers. The Battle of Algiers is sometimes cited as the first important case of an urban terrorist campaign waged by dedicated revolutionaries who operationalized a cellular organizational model. Algeria had been a French possession for more than a century before achieving independence in 1962. Algeria’s war for independence, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), was particularly brutal, with atrocities being committed by both sides. In 1957, the city of Algiers became a center of terrorist insurrection and military repression. The terrorists designed a cellular organizational model, and their operational strategy emphasized the complete disruption of French civilian life and government administration in Algiers. A large number of attacks were made against French interests and expatriates, including many bombings of civilian targets. In reply, elite French paratroopers were sent into the city to engage in unconventional policing activities to root out the terrorist cells. Torture was officially sanctioned, and many innocent Algerian civilians were caught in the counterterrorist net. In the end, the terrorist cells were eliminated, but the brutal counterterrorist methodology of the paratroopers alienated the Algerian community, thus creating widespread sympathy for the FLN.

The Stateless Revolutionaries. Several terrorist movements adopted a “stateless” operational strategy and operated on an international scale. Some groups had no particular home country that they sought to liberate. Other groups had been driven from the land that they claimed and were forced to relocate to bases in sympathetic countries. There were a number of reasons for the stateless profile. Groups such as the internationalist Japanese Red Army espoused a global ideological agenda that justified terrorist violence on behalf of vague concepts, such as championing “the oppressed” of the world. In contrast, Palestinian nationalists functioned within an operational environment that mandated as a practical matter that they select and attack targets internationally. Palestinian terrorists therefore struck from safe havens across state borders and frequently moved from country to country. Al-Qaeda represents the modern incarnation of the stateless revolutionaries. The group temporarily found safe haven in Afghanistan before being driven out in late 2001 and has always espoused sectarian internationalist revolution.

The Afghan Arabs. Significant numbers of terrorist cadres have been recruited from among the so-called Afghan Arabs. The Afghan Arabs were volunteers from around the Muslim world who fought during the 10-year war against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Most of these fighters were drawn from Arab nations and hence were popularly known as Afghan Arabs. The anti-Soviet resistance was armed and supported by the United States, which considered the conflict to be another proxy war against its global rival. However, from the perspective of many native Afghans and the Afghan Arabs, the war took on the attributes of a holy jihad against a godless Communist invader and its puppet government.

After suffering 15,000 fatalities, the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan. Many Afghan Arabs considered themselves to be international mujahideen (holy warriors), and began a global movement on behalf of the faith. For example, Algerians who had fought in Afghanistan also fought in the brutal Algerian insurgency during the 1990s. Afghan Arabs volunteered to fight in Bosnia, where they became renowned for their zeal, military prowess, and cruelty. Afghan Arabs traveled to Muslim communities in the developing world, assisting Muslim groups in their causes by providing technical advice and other support. Afghan Arabs created networks of indoctrinated sympathizers that have participated in several uprisings and terrorist incidents. Osama bin Laden and his compatriots were instrumental in linking together the Afghan Arabs and like-minded Muslim radicals under the loose umbrella of Al-Qaeda.

Convergence: Attributes of the New Terrorism

The New Terrorism evolved from a muchdebated theoretical construct during the 1990s to an operationalization of the concept as the predominant typology of the modern terrorist environment. The seminal events of September 11, 2001, symbolize the culmination of a predicted convergence between organizational decentralization, operational asymmetry, religious centrality, and a palpable threat from weapons of mass destruction. Thus, Hoffman’s (1997) description of the New Terrorism as a “confluence” of these and other factors was quite prescient. This convergent terrorist environment is a decidedly transnational environment, with cells loosely linked to each other across regions and countries. Al-Qaeda and its progeny deliberately position terrorist operatives and autonomous cells in foreign countries, thus creating an amorphous network that is difficult to identify and counter.

Organizational Decentralization

As predicted by many practitioners and scholars, it has become increasingly rare for terrorist movements and networks to organize themselves in pyramidal configurations. In fact, modern terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda eschew traditional hierarchical organizational models. They have instead adopted cellular configurations that allow for quasiautonomous operations. Several theoretical models have been posited to describe organizational and communications networks used by clandestine organizations such as terrorist movements. Typical theories describe the following:

  • Chain networks. A linear arrangement in which information, people, weapons, or resources move through a series of separate contact points.
  • Hub-and-spoke networks. A centralized arrangement in which information, people, weapons, or resources move through a single contact point before moving out to other contact points. Thus, a series of single contact points and chain networks can be jointly linked through a single hub.
  • All-channel networks. A complex arrangement in which information, people, weapons, or resources are interconnected through a series of contact points. This type of network allows for innumerable chain and hub-and-spoke contact points to support the overarching all-channel network.
  • Operational Asymmetry

Experts have agreed since the 1990s that terrorism will be increasingly used as an “asymmetrical” warfighting strategy to engage the United States and its allies (Lesser 1999:94). Asymmetrical warfare refers to carrying out unconventional, unexpected, and nearly unpredictable acts of political violence against an otherwise unassailable opponent. Although it is in fact not a completely unprecedented practice, the disruptive potential from modern asymmetrical warfare has become a worrisome feature of the New Terrorism. In the modern era, terrorists who adopt asymmetrical methods are actively seeking to acquire and wield new high-yield arsenals, are willing to strike at unanticipated targets, and are adept at experimenting with unique and idiosyncratic tactics. This environment is likely to produce terrorists who will use newly available technologies to attack hitherto unthreatened sectors such as communications nodes. The Internet and other sophisticated communications technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for cyberterrorists (Devost, Houghton, and Pollard 1997).

Religious Centrality

As expected by Laqueur (1996) and other scholars, religious terrorism increased in frequency and global reach in the era of the New Terrorism. Many movements and ethnonationalist groups linked their causes to an underlying spiritual principle, as has been observed in Kashmir, Indonesia, India, Israel, and elsewhere. Transnational religious terrorism is particularly troublesome for victims because,

When terrorists adopt a religious belief system, their worldview becomes one of a struggle between supernatural forces of good and evil. They view themselves as living a righteous life in a manner that fits with their interpretation of God’s will. According to religious extremists, those who do not conform to their belief system are opposed to the one true faith. (Martin 2003:30)

Supporters of religious terrorists are convinced of the spiritual purity of the fighters. For example, a Pakistani religious student concluded,

Osama [bin Laden] wants to keep Islam pure from the pollution of the infidels…. He believes Islam is the way for all the world. He wants to bring Islam to all the world. (Goldberg 2000:35)

Those who would agree with this student do not hesitate to fight, kill, and die in the name of what they perceive as the fulfillment of God’s will.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The literature has been replete with warnings about terrorists’ acquisition of high-yield weapons that are capable of causing catastrophic casualties and damage (Falkenrath, Newman, and Thayer 1998; Laqueur 1999; Stern 1999). These weapons include biological and chemical agents, radiological agents, and nuclear weapons, each of which has been cited by experts as a potential terrorist threat (Cole 1997; Hoffman 1998; Tucker 2000). The events of September 11, 2001, demonstrated that weapons of mass destruction also include unexpected devices deployed in an unprecedented manner, such as fuel-laden airliners used as ballistic missiles. Prior to the era of the New Terrorism, terrorists tended to select focused and relatively surgical targets and used fairly predictable methods. However, the morality of the New Terrorism permits the selection of indiscriminate targets and the adoption of previously unthinkable methods, including the deployment of high-yield weapons against large segments of “enemy” civilian populations. This is particularly true of terrorists motivated by ethnic, racial, or religious hatred (Vegar 1998). Selected targets can now be hit with much more destructive power than in the past; all that is really required is the will to do so. Terrorists are not necessarily interested in overthrowing governments or forcing them to change policies as their primary objectives. Rather, they often simply wish to inflict significant casualties and thereby terrorize and disrupt societies and large populations.

The New Future: Terrorism in a Unipolar World

In February 2001, the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century issued a prescient report assessing the contemporary national security environment. The commission was a 14-member bipartisan committee led by former Democratic Senator Gary Hart and former Republican Senator Warren Rudman, with other members drawn from the military, the media, academia, the executive branch, and former legislators. The commission bluntly warned,

The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack. A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century. (U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century 2001:viii)

Thus, threats from subnational terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction were identified as priority concerns for national security in the new millennium. Observing that “significant changes must be made in the structures and processes of the U.S. national security apparatus” (U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century 2001), the Commission recommended “the creation of a new independent National Homeland Security Agency (NHSA) with responsibility for planning, coordinating, and integrating various U.S. government activities involved in homeland security” (United States Commission on National Security/21st Century 2001). These and other findings and recommendations challenged policymakers to fundamentally reevaluate the potential threat to the American homeland.

Confirmation of the New Terrorism

The United States has emerged as the world’s only superpower at the beginning of the new millennium. At the same time that its economic predominance is projected to continue to grow, its military superiority has become unassailable. Adversaries have no reasonable expectation that they can successfully challenge the United States and its Western allies in a conventional confrontation. Only unconventional and asymmetrical methods afford anti-Western revolutionaries a measure of war-fighting capability in a unipolar world. From the perspective of modern terrorists, particularly stateless revolutionaries such as Al-Qaeda, this new reality necessitates new creativity in selecting and attacking targets. Terrorists have certainly adapted to this new environment, as attacks by Al-Qaeda and their sympathizers repeatedly demonstrated meticulous planning, impressive patience, and dramatic effectiveness.

The record of terrorist violence in the years immediately preceding and succeeding the recent turn of the century confirms that the New Terrorism is the principal typology of the modern terrorist environment:

  1. In June 1996, a truck bomb in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, destroyed a barracks housing U.S. military personnel. Nineteen were killed and about 500 were wounded.
  2. In August 1998, the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were bombed. The attacks occurred nearly simultaneously. Hundreds were killed or wounded, most of them Kenyans.
  3. In October 2000, the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was severely damaged by suicide boat bombers in the port of Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed.
  4. On September 11, 2001, four aircraft were hijacked shortly after takeoff on the East Coast of the United States. One airliner crashed into rural Pennsylvania, two crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, and one crashed into the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. Nearly 3,000 people were killed. Suicide terrorist hijackers were responsible for the attack.
  5. In October 2002, massive explosions struck a tourist area on the Indonesian island of Bali. About 190 people were killed, most of them Australians.
  6. In November 2002, three suicide bombers destroyed an Israeli-owned resort in Mombassa, Kenya. A nearly simultaneous attack was made against an Israeli airliner using two antiaircraft missiles, which failed to hit their target.

These attacks confirm the expectations of practitioners and scholars who predicted the ascendancy of the New Terrorism. They also exemplify the global scope of the New Terrorism, as well as the painstaking planning and selection of targets typifying terrorist violence in the new era.

A War unlike Other Wars

Strategists readily concede that the war against terrorism is unlike other wars (Pillar 2001). The new security environment engendered by the attacks of September 11, 2001, is forcing policymakers to design innovative strategies for fighting a global war against terrorism (Posen 2001/2002). For example, war has been declared not only against terrorist organizations but also against terrorist behavior. Policymakers realize that the “fronts” in this new war are amorphous and fluid and that covert “shadow wars” must be waged using unconventional methods, coercive diplomacy, and vying for the hearts and minds of constituent groups (de Wijk 2002). This requires creating the capacity to deploy military, paramilitary, and coercive covert assets to far regions of the world (Sarkesian 2002). Strategists have also concluded that counterterrorist financial operations must be designed and continuously upgraded to target bank accounts, private foundations, businesses, and other sources of revenue for terrorist networks (Pillar 2001:92). Thus, for example, accessing the terrorists’ financial databases requires a broad-based alliance of governments and private financial institutions.

Measures must also be designed to harden targets, deter attacks, and thwart conspiracies, a process commonly referred to as “antiterrorism.” Internal security centers, such as customs checkpoints, law enforcement agencies, and immigration authorities, have become frontline operations in the new war. Other features of the new war necessarily include the following:

  • Disrupting transnational terrorist networks. Because this requires operational capacity to track extremist operatives, primary responsibility for this task must logically be delegated to intelligence and law enforcement communities.
  • Global surveillance of the terrorists’ technologies, including telephones, cell phones, and e-mail. Intelligence agencies specializing in electronic surveillance are the most capable institutions to carry out this mission.

In the United States, homeland security is a priority concern for policymakers. The unprecedented features of the new war have, in their estimation, required a complete reconfiguration of the domestic security community (Carter 2001/2002). In October 2001, the USA Patriot Act was signed into law to enhance the security mission of domestic agencies. In November 2002, the United States Senate passed, and President George W. Bush enacted, the Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002. The outcome has been a revamping of the domestic mission and powers of federal agencies, as well as the consolidation of 22 agencies into an overarching Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest agency in the federal government. Taken together, the USA Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security Act represent the culmination of a sweeping reassessment of domestic security requisites for prosecuting the war against terrorism.

The New Future

What will be the attributes of the new future for terrorist movements, terrorist violence, and counterterrorist options? Many in the international community have come to understand that after September 11, 2001, governments and societies must adapt to a new security environment and a new future. Because it is in the nature of modern terrorists to be flexible and creative in their methodology, it is reasonable to project that the New Terrorism will define the global terrorist environment into the immediate future. Based on current events and recent expert analyses, several conclusions can be reasonably considered.

First, the fundamental sources of terrorist violence will not change in the near future. Intense expressions of intolerance and resentment will continue to motivate violent extremists to blame entire societies and groups of people for their state of affairs. Second, religious violence will remain a central feature of terrorism for the foreseeable future. Internationally, Al-Qaeda and other religious terrorists have consistently attacked targets that symbolize enemy interests. Domestically, religious terrorists in Pakistan, Israel, Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere have waged campaigns to destabilize their governments, often attacking symbolic foreign interests. Third, weapons of mass destruction will become increasingly available to terrorists. In particular, terrorists with religious worldviews have already demonstrated their desire to acquire and wield these weapons. Fourth, more resources will be allocated to counterterrorist programs. Terrorism has become a global problem, so that international cooperation will become increasingly vital to disrupt and defeat the new terrorists. Fifth, although the “old” terrorism will certainly not disappear, its centrality in the global terrorist environment has ended. Ideological terrorism has all but disappeared in the West. In addition, long-standing ethnonationalist conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and the Spanish Basque region have come tantalizingly close to some degree of resolution in the new millennium. Sixth, and very importantly, asymmetry will continue to be a central terrorist strategy. They will persist in designing highly creative operational and organizational models, and it is very plausible that information technologies in the hands of terrorists will be used to wage cyberterrorism on a global scale.


This chapter has attempted to validate the proposition that a New Terrorism is to be differentiated from, and has supplanted, the terrorist typologies of the cold war era. Taken in perspective, the organizational and operational profiles of terrorist movements such as Al-Qaeda do give credence to warnings from experts in recent years that the New Terrorism is the predominant model for the modern terrorist environment. Past patterns of terrorism arose from international political trends that no longer exist, so that movements motivated by ideologies rooted in the old East-West rivalry have become unviable. In their place have arisen loose cellular networks of religious terrorists who are adept at engaging in global asymmetrical warfare.

Those who engage in terrorism are no longer predominantly ideological or ethnonationalist activists who in their view are waging a secular war on behalf of a particular people or in solidarity with the oppressed of the world. The New Terrorism is motivated by a belief that the “one true faith” must be defended from nonbelievers and apostates. Those who follow this creed believe that fighting, killing, and dying in the name of the cause are not only acceptable but also desirable. Thus, it is from this source of radical activism that a sea change has occurred in the international terrorist environment. Governments and societies must, of necessity, collectively and cooperatively adapt themselves to this new environment.